Good Friday of the Passion of the Lord

Today’s readings

Last night, I talked about the New Testament theme of kenosis, which is the idea of self-emptying, of pouring oneself out.  Last night, we talked about that in terms of the call to service: that Jesus himself got up from table, tied a towel around himself and took the lowest position, washing the feet of his disciples.  We reflected on how we are all called to that kind of kenosis, giving up our entitlement to see to the salvation of everyone in our life.  Today, I’d like to take another brief look at kenosis, because today we see that idea played out in its ultimate form.

I said yesterday that kenosis applied to our Lord, who, as Saint Paul wrote to the Philippians, “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.”  That’s today, of course.  It echoes what Isaiah says of the suffering servant in today’s first reading.  The suffering servant’s appearance is so marred, stricken, so infirm that we cannot bear to look at him.  It shouldn’t be that way; he is our God.  But that’s kenosis.

The reason we can’t bear to look on him, of course, because if we really looked hard enough, we know, in our heart of hearts, that the marring, the strickenness, the infirmity are all ours.  This is a dark hour.  It seems like all is lost.  That’s one of the few guarantees that this fleeting life gives to us.  We will have to bear our own cross of suffering: the illness or death of loved ones, the loss of a job, the splintering of a family, or even the shame of addictive sin.  It is our brokenness that we see in the suffering servant, our sinfulness on the son of man.  And this suffering servant is embodied by our God, Jesus Christ our Savior, who carries all of that nastiness to the cross, and hangs there before us, bleeding and dying and crying out in agony.  That’s our sin, our death, our punishment – and he bore it all for us.  He chose to pour himself out – for us.

And just when it seems like there is nothing left for him to give, when it seems like all life has been snuffed out, when it seems like death has the upper hand, the soldier thrusts his lance into the side of our Lord, and he pours himself out in one more glorious act of kenosis:  from his side pours forth the life blood and water that plants the seeds of the Church into the barren ground of the earth, guaranteeing the presence of the Lord in the world until the end of time.  Christ our God gives everything he has for us, takes away all that divides us, and performs the saving sacrifice that makes salvation possible for all people.  Our God gives up everything – everything – for love of us.

We know that the suffering and death of Jesus is not the end of the story.  In the day ahead, we will keep vigil for the Resurrection of the Lord which shatters the hold that sin and death have on us.  We are a people who eagerly yearn for the Resurrection.  We certainly hope for the great salvation that is ours, and the light and peace of God’s Kingdom.  But that’s for tomorrow.  Today we remember that that salvation was bought at a very dear price, the price of the death of our Savior, our great High Priest.  Today we look back on all of our sufferings of the past or the present, we even look ahead to those that may yet be.  We see all those sufferings up there on that cross, willingly taken there by our Saving Lord.  And as we sit here in God’s presence we know that we are never ever alone in our dark hours, that Christ has united himself to us in his suffering and death.  May we too unite ourselves to him by embracing our own suffering, and walk confidently through it with him, pass the gates of salvation, and enter one great day into God’s heavenly kingdom.

The Twenty-fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time [Cycle B]

Today’s readings

One of my favorite things to do when I have spare time is to read a good mystery novel.  My mother passed her love for that genre on to me, and to my sisters.  I always used to love Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle, and I’ve read and re-read my favorites from them many times.  I also love to see mysteries played out in movies and on television, and some of my favorite shows are dramas along those lines.  The thing that I’ve learned about mysteries as a genre is that the best of them are the stories that keep you guessing; they aren’t solved all in the first six pages.

During these Ordinary Time Sundays of the year, the Church presents two main topics for our edification and our growth in faith.  One of those topics is instruction in discipleship; how do we live as disciples and what does it look like?  We’ve been hearing that throughout the summer.  The other topic is what we are seeing today: and that is instruction in who Jesus is.  And this is where the mystery begins to play out.  Just when the disciples (and, truthfully, we ourselves) think they have Jesus all figured out, it turns out they don’t really get it at all.  Jesus is like an onion in some ways, every new clue just peels away one layer, and there is always more there to be discovered.

In the first reading, the figure speaking is commonly referred to as “the Suffering Servant,” a figure that is later identified with Jesus.  Whoever the figure is, he or she has incredible faith.  One might expect that faith to be rewarded, but it’s not.  Instead, his back is beaten, his beard is plucked, and his face is buffeted and spat upon.  Yet, he continues to have faith, setting his face, knowing that he will not be put to shame.  Maybe you have met a person who has gone through incredible trials like unemployment, family strife, or serious illness, and has remained faithful.  If you know a person like that, perhaps you have sensed a bit of Jesus working in that person.

In the second reading, St. James tells us that our faith must be living, or it is not faith at all.  He has seen far too many people who will say nice things to people and claim to have faith, but refuse to help alleviate anyone’s real needs.  “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well” are nice-sounding words, but are, of course, meaningless when spoken to people who have serious problems: no place to live and keep warm, and little if anything to eat.  James’s faith is one that sees the great mystery of Christ’s presence in those who are in need.  We have the same challenges today, of course.  There are many who are needy among us, and we disciples are called to a living faith that reaches out to those in need.  Perhaps you’ve had the opportunity to work at a soup kitchen or a shelter, or go on a mission trip.  If you’ve done that, maybe you have seen the face of Christ in those you’ve served.

The Gospel continues the theme of mystery by asking the question point-blank: “who do you say that I am?”  The people of Jesus’ time, the disciples included, were constantly trying to figure him out.  Peter seems to have figured out one of the clues: Jesus is the Messiah.  But he totally misses the boat on just what kind of Messiah Jesus is to be.  When Jesus talks about the necessity of his suffering and death, Peter just can’t wrap his mind around it.  Jesus’ response to Peter is that to really know who Jesus is, Peter needs to think like God, not like a human being.  The strangeness of this mystery is so great that it applies not just to Jesus, but also to anyone who would want to follow him.  Disciples like us must take up our cross: if we wish to save our lives, we must give them away.  This is a very great mystery indeed.

The real mystery to this mystery of who Jesus is, is that the more we find out about him, the more we find out about ourselves.  Because we too are called to be suffering servants: all of our good efforts won’t always be rewarded in this life.  Sometimes standing up for what is right will lead to scorn and abuse.  But we do it nonetheless, knowing that ultimately, we will never be put to shame.  And we too are called to have faith that is living, faith that reveals itself in the works we do.  We can’t claim to be people of faith if we don’t give of ourselves and extend ourselves in service.  Faith that never says yes to the call of Jesus is not faith at all.  Faith that is only evident one hour a week is not faith at all.  And finally, we are called, by the very words of our Savior, to take up our cross and follow him.  Following him will ultimately lead us to glory if we do it faithfully.  But following him will also lead us to the Cross.  Yesterday we celebrated that mystery in the feast of the Triumph of the Cross.  Yes, we will suffer in this life, yes we will die, but that death will release us to the glory of the resurrection, if we embrace it in faith.

The psalmist sums it all up for us today.  Yes, the suffering in our lives leads us to experience the cords of death that encompass us.  We often fall into distress and sorrow.  But when we embrace that suffering and call on the Lord, we will find ourselves freed of death and able to walk before the Lord in the land of the living.  We who have embraced and remembered and celebrated the mystery of Christ’s presence in our lives, in our Church and in our world, can approach suffering with great faith.  There’s a contemporary Christian song that says “sometimes he calms the storm, and other times he calms his child.”  God won’t always make our tears and pain go away.  But he does promise that we will never go through them alone.  We will probably never completely figure Christ out this side of the Kingdom.  The disciples didn’t and we won’t either.  But when we enter into the mystery, we can keep turning the pages and finding more and more clues.  When we enter the mystery, we can look forward to the great unveiling of the solution when we enter our heavenly reward.

Thursday of the Sixth Week of Ordinary Time

Today's readings

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Sometimes, it seems, we think that God is too big to deal with our paltry little problems.  In thinking that way, though, we make God out to be quite a bit smaller than he really is.  We want to define God, just like Peter did.  We want him to be our Messiah, but the Messiah of our own desires.  Peter couldn’t conceive of a Messiah who would have to suffer.  We can’t conceive of a Messiah who wouldn’t do everything we ever asked him to, who wouldn’t make our life deliriously happy, who wouldn’t make all our problems go away.  Or else we think our Messiah is too busy to even be concerned with our lives.  Either way, we are selling our Messiah way short.

Jesus says our Messiah “must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days.”  He will walk through the pain with us, and sometimes that pain will go away, sometimes it won’t, but the pain will never be ignored.  Our God is not too big to note our suffering, and is never too big to walk through it with us.  But he’s not small enough to be our genie in a bottle, waving the magic wand to make us do what he wants.

The Lord hears the cry of the poor, the Psalmist tells us today: “When the poor one called out, the LORD heard, and from all his distress he saved him.”  Our Messiah is a God who hears our cry, and knows our suffering.  We are never alone in our need.